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EXERCISE: Stick To Your Workouts

By Miguel Humara, Ph.D.

“I don’t feel like working out!” We’ve all had that thought at one time or another. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that every American adult should accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity such as brisk walking or gardening over the course of most, and ideally all days of the week. Indeed, physical activity has been identified as a behavior with potential benefits for improved physical and psychological health in men and women of all ages. Despite the fact that we began an exercise regimen, many of us often stray away form it. Why is that? The truth is that different people don’t work out for different reasons.

Individuality is one of the traits that is most valued in our culture. However, according to researchers people fit into one of five categories when it comes to working out: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.

  • Precontemplators do not exercise and do not intend to start in the next 6 months.
  • Contemplators do not currently exercise but intend to start in the next 6 months.
  • Prepapers are exercising some but not regularly (3 or more times per week for 20 minutes or longer, or accumulating 30 or more minutes per day 5 or more days per week).
  • Individuals in the action stage exercise regularly but have been doing so for less than 6 months.
  • Individuals in maintenance exercise regularly and have done so for 6 months or longer.


In order to stick to your work outs, it is important that you identify which of the above five categories you fit into so that you can choose which intervention strategy is best for you. When there is a mismatch between your category and the intervention strategy, the likelihood that you will maintain you exercise regimen decreases dramatically.

Several points need to be made which apply to individuals in all of the categories. First and foremost is the importance of believing in yourself. This helps to increase the likelihood that you will continue to work out. Making positive self-statements such as “I can do it!” or “I am a warrior!” are useful statements for increasing this belief in yourself.

Secondly, it is important to plan your goals. You should set up short term and long term goals. While these will differ depending on which category you fit into, they are useful for everyone. Individuals who are just starting to work out might set up a short term goal of walking 3 times per week and adding 5 minutes onto their workouts every week. They might make a long term goal of walking 5 days a week. Individuals on the higher end of the scale might set up a short term goal of running 5 days per week and adding 5 minutes every week to their time. Regardless of your specific goal, it is important to have one.

Finally, never under estimate the value of journal keeping. You might write in your long and short term goals along with a log of the actual activity and the length of time that you participated in it for. This is a useful activity since it allows you to see how far you have come.

Precontemplators need some event in their life to get them thinking about exercise. All to often it is a warning from a health professional about the need to start exercising. Research has shown that exercise provides protection against coronary heart disease. It also helps prevent colon cancer in men, reproductive cancers in women, obesity, and other chronic diseases such as osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Perhaps the need to be a role model for an obese child is sufficient to move individuals to the next stage. As always, consult with your physician before beginning any exercise regimen.

A contemplator must first ask “What’s in it for Me?” There are many physical benefits such as weight control and lowering the risk of heart disease, but there are also psychological benefits as well. These include the reduction of depression and stress. Just the social benefits of working out alone are enough to achieve these improvements. You may meet some new people in a class or improve your relationship with a significant other by going for a walk and spending more time together. Finally, individuals in this stage need to look for ways to increase activity levels in their everyday lives. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator or park the car at the end of the parking lot.

An individual in the preparation phase should make use of the short term and long term goal setting strategies described above. It is particularly important to reward yourself for achieving your goals. You might want to buy yourself flowers or a new piece of clothing for increasing the amount of time or the frequency with which you exercise. You may also find that you need to use time management skills to fit your new exercise lifestyle into your schedule. Perhaps you could ride an exercise bicycle while watching television or take the dog for a brisk walk or light run in the evening rather then the leisurely stroll you take. Maybe going dancing with your significant other or kids instead of going to a movie is what tit will take for you. Whatever ever you choose to do, read up on it at your local library. There are plenty of good resource books for any activity that might interest you. Why try to reinvent the wheel?

Individuals in the action category need to figure out how to keep it going. You have probably already experienced the health benefits (i.e., weight management and increased energy) as well as the emotional benefits (improved mood). You should focus on trouble shooting problems that could lead to relapse. Perhaps the biggest problem to deal with is boredom. You should combat this by participating in a variety of sports such as switching from running to swimming to bicycling. You may also want to try and gain social support by finding people who you can be active with or are supportive of your lifestyle. There are many clubs that you can join, take advantage of them. Another common problem is to set goals that are unachievable, which inevitably leads to feelings of failure. Make sure that your short term and long term goals are reasonable. Finally, don’t forget to keep rewarding yourself with both internal rewards like praise or external rewards like flowers.

Individuals in the maintenance stage have undoubtedly experienced the benefits of working out. The key question for them is similar to that for those in the action stage, how to keep it going. Continued self-rewards and setting reasonable goals are important strategies to use. Typically these individuals relapse when they become injured. It is therefore important to guard against injury. Read up on how you can do this for your individual sport. If you do become injured, look at your rehabilitation time as being a work-out rather than rehab. You won’t believe the difference that this makes mentally. Finally, stay in tune with your sport during that time. Put things around the house that remind you of exercising. Remember to set reasonable goals for yourself when you are able to return to your sport of choice.

Regardless of the category in which you fit, we are all in danger of receding back. It is important to be aware of this and do what you can based on the stage in which you find yourself. Remember to use strategies that are tailored to your category. Otherwise, they will not achieve their full impact on you. You would think that the physical and emotional benefits of exercise would be sufficient to keep us all going, unfortunately they are only part of the solution.